Ashley Franklin returns to Shardlow to find it still a perfect place to work, live and while away the hours watching the boats go by

Great British Life: Cruising through ShardlowCruising through Shardlow (Image: Ashley Franklin Photography)

The best thing to say about Shardlow is that since my last visit nearly four years ago nothing appears to have changed. As a conservation area with over 50 Grade II listed buildings, it is good to report that it happily remains a ‘Rural Rotterdam’, Britain’s most complete surviving example of a canal village with a unique, heady atmosphere generated by its boats, towpaths, locks, pubs and warehouses.

When Derbyshire engineer James Brindley constructed the Trent & Mersey waterway at the end of the 18th century, he effectively created a canal motorway and Shardlow grew in size and prosperity. The last boat to deliver its cargo to Shardlow was in the early 1950s. Since then, Shardlow became perfectly placed for access to the road motorways and has grown into a different kind of working village.

The canal heritage has been significant here: the pubs, restaurants and guest houses thrive on tourism, especially through the rise in pleasure-boating; and while some old warehouses are utilised for canal-related businesses like narrowboat building and waterway chandlery, others are being used as a brewery, retail showrooms or, in the case of Mill No 1, as office accommodation.

Mill No 1, known most notably as a corn mill, and thought to be the most substantially built warehouse in the area, is now Shardlow Business Centre. Overlooking the canal, the attraction for businesses away from town and city hustle and bustle is clear.

Appropriately, a water-related company – Apollo Offshore Engineering – came to occupy an office here a year ago and, according to Business Unit Manager Paul Ellerton, it’s proved a satisfying move: ‘We were originally based in the centre of Nottingham and when we outgrew the office, we decided we didn’t actually need to be in the midst of a city. In fact, we are more centrally located here and, for a few of our staff, it’s nearer home and allows them to cycle to and from work along the towpath. We were impressed by the fact that we told the proprietors we would be more interested in coming here if they supplied a shower unit for our perspiring cyclists – so they did. Better still, this office is half the price of our last one and we’ve got twice the location. Also, parking is better, our clients love coming here and, under these old beams and in such a quiet part of the world, the calming atmosphere is very conducive to working. We also ensure our team treats itself to a monthly pub visit!’

Neil Baker, who runs Developer Designs, arrived in January, finding here the greater space and privacy he needed. ‘For an office location, it couldn’t be better,’ says Neil. ‘This building has so much character and it’s a pleasure to work here. Also, if my work stresses me out, I just go for a walk along the towpath.’

Anthony York’s company Only People is also a perfect fit in this building. As a human resources consulting solutions business which services many big companies like Morrisons and Carphone Warehouse, Anthony points out that he and his associates ‘look for creative HR solutions, and this quiet, relaxed and depressurised environment enables us to focus on the specifics of our work.’ Having a balcony to take in the tranquility of the canal is a further bonus.

One of the other advantages offered by Shardlow Business Centre is its size. There are 20 individual offices of varying dimensions so that an expanding or down-sizing business already there can move office quickly and without having to change their phone number or address.

Size also matters at the warehouse occupied by Zing Interiors and Beau Jangle, enabling large stocks to be displayed in an attractively historic setting. Zing – ‘we wanted a name that was happy, modern and fresh’ says owner Pauline Gill – is able to display a vast, dizzying array of furniture and accessories including solid oak furniture, from country house to contemporary style plus some French-style ‘shabby chic’, a new furniture range in oak and tulip wood with Farrow & Ball paint finish, and all kinds of jewellery, table lamps, chandeliers, clocks, mirrors, ornaments and gifts. ‘We always have something different here,’ states Pauline, adding that location has been key to Zing’s success: ‘We have boaters, holiday home owners and other visitors quite often coming back to see us, sometimes from far afield, as they are so impressed by our range of goods. They tell their family and friends, too, so we’ve become quite a meeting place as part of a day out in Shardlow.’

Upstairs, Eira Miller runs Beau Jangle where her range of French and Italian ladies clothing, jewellery and handbags are appealingly displayed on and around her husband Garry’s chunky bespoke rustic furniture, Wild Wood Designs, made from old reclaimed beams. Eira is a designer, too: she’s about to launch her own handbag range.

With visitors flocking to Shardlow to shop, walk, cycle or cruise, it’s no surprise to see the pubs here thriving rather than merely surviving. The large, imposing Clock Warehouse has long been home to a pub and, in keeping with its traditional look, there is also a skittle alley. Confusingly, the word ‘Navigation’ is writ large on the frontage, yet the actual Navigation pub is over the road; whilst down the towpath, the Malt Shovel and New Inn sit beside each other, perfect places for sipping a drink in the sunshine while watching the watery world float by. The Malt Shovel is to be praised for its initiative in this IT intensive world for installing a mobile phone signal booster! They also host a comedy club and Tarot evenings and they choose Sunday for live entertainment ‘to squeeze the last bit of fun out of the weekend before Monday morning turns up again.’

There is music every Friday and Saturday night inside Smithies, the recently rejuvenated pub beside Shardlow Marina. Businessman Adam Smith had been living on the Marina for 2½ years and had long had his eye on the pub, eventually taking his chance to revive it as an Irish-themed bar. In this ‘cosy ambience’ where Adam has replaced the cold, tiled floor with warming carpets, he has also cannily created three separate areas: a music stage and dance floor, the bar itself, and a quieter dining area. ‘Rather than create a tourist bar, I’ve got something for everyone,’ promises Adam, adding that he is looking to host champagne breakfasts, afternoon teas and tapas evenings. There is also a distinctive feature about the music nights, which include open mic sessions: musical instruments, including an array of guitars, are already provided.

As for living on a boat, Adam says the relaxed, laid back way of life as a ‘liveaboard’ has made him ‘more easy-going.’ This is confirmed by every liveaboarder I’ve met, including Alma Beasley who had never been on a boat in her life until she and her husband decided to live on one. As she recounts, the catalyst was their regular towpath walks: ‘We found boaters so warm and friendly, waving and saying hello, and looking so content, that we decided we wanted to be a part of that world.’ Having taken the plunge into waterway living, Alma says her life feels like ‘a permanent holiday of relaxation and freedom where the scenery changes all the time.’

One very good reason for her satisfaction was being able to design every aspect of their boat, as constructed by Shardlow-based JD Narrowboats who specialise in ‘bespoke, hand-built, hand-machined boats of solid wood – no MDF or chipboard – fitted out by proper cabinet makers.’ Alma was delighted to discover that narrowboats came with all the mod cons one would expect from a home. This made the significant change in lifestyle more palatable for Alma, particularly when she found she could have underfloor heating and a bathroom as spacious as the one in her house. ‘Some friends and relatives we invited on board expected to see a rough and ready Spartan lifestyle and were surprised to see even a large fridge and a washing machine,’ recalls Alma. ‘They also see how happy we are. I love it even when it rains, as you feel very snug in the warm listening to the raindrops pitter-pattering on the roof.’

Right beside Shardlow Heritage Centre, I met Maureen Hallam who started living on a boat with husband Mike 21 years ago following as many years boating at weekends. Maureen wasn’t sure it would work out so she placed her house furniture in storage ‘just in case.’ Two years later, that furniture was sold. Maureen adds a significant perspective to liveaboard life which the Inland Waterways Association might want to adopt in its promotional literature.

‘We don’t feel at all lonely, isolated or hemmed in by this life,’ states Maureen, ‘and although we don’t literally have any neighbours to speak of, we actually have hundreds of neighbours, namely the other boaters we meet. They are as friendly as any good neighbour can be, they stay as friends, and even if you don’t see them for a few years, it’s more the pleasure when you do.’

Other advantages for Maureen include the sense of history around them, and the quiet. ‘I can sit here for hours just watching the birds,’ she says.

In polar contrast, Sheila Cooke and husband John decided 36 years ago to live in a canalside house in Shardlow having admired it while boating through the village. Sheila was especially pleased to discover that their 1910 house was the original home of a waterways clerk and, 15 years later, that her mother’s family was from Shardlow and her eldest son was a boatman. ‘It made me feel I really belonged in this lovely place,’ says Sheila. What makes Shardlow special for Sheila is ‘the interaction with the canal and historic port features that have survived.’ It led to Sheila becoming a central part of the Shardlow Heritage Centre which houses a well-stocked, wide-ranging collection of artefacts, attracting over 1600 visitors a year. There will be even more to see during the Shardlow Open Weekend on the weekend of 29th-30th March at the Village Hall where there will be a display of original Parish Records, photographs, maps, censuses, village surveys, wills and canal carrying records. This is also an opportunity to publicise the Heritage Centre’s need for new members. ‘It’s a lovely job,’ promises Sheila, ‘as visitors to the centre are always so appreciative.’

However, Shardlow isn’t all about the canal. It’s a village community like any other. As is common with other villages, it’s now down to its last shop, one of the downsides of the opening of a by-pass in 2002, even though Sheila Cooke recalls the relief of ‘crossing the road in less than 20 minutes.’ Although a petrol station and newsagent closed, the ailing post office and store was rejuvenated 12 years ago by Harold and Julie Harris, and now does a healthy trade in fruit and vegetables along with Shardlow beer and local honey and pickles. ‘We’ve become a social hub of the village,’ Harold points out, and it showed as he bantered with all manner of customers while I was in the store, until popping out to make a delivery to a housebound resident. Like the sauce on its shelves, Shardlow Post Office/Store should be bottled and sold.

Harold also believes Shardlow is ‘a vibrant place commercially and socially’ and that’s proven by the fact that the pubs away from the canal – the Old Crown Inn, Shakespeare and Dog & Duck – are still going strong, making Shardlow possibly the most pub populated village in the UK.

Down the lane from the Dog & Duck is Shardlow’s oldest company celebrating its 30th anniversary: Old 20, a reference to the Ferguson T20 tractor which jump-started business for Nick Battelle and wife Michele. What started as ‘tinkering with tractors and selling the odd spare part’ is now a global business where a staff of seven service 28,000 customers. Old 20’s USP is that along with selling modern tractor parts, it’s the only company selling old spares. ‘Before we began,’ says Nick, ‘farmers would buy not one but two or three tractors so they had available spares; we filled that gap in the market.’

A recent commercial success is Shardlow Hall Private Day Nursery which was set up by Louise Essex two years ago to offer childcare for ages 0 to 14 in ‘a safe, secure and stimulating environment.’ The rural setting in the grounds of Shardlow Hall is a plus as the nursery is able to use all eight acres of the grounds for picnicking and nature exploration.

As for Shardlow Hall itself, this grand 17th century Grade II listed house built by canal industrialist Leonard Fosbrooke sits in decrepit, unloved solitude. At least it’s hidden from public gaze, unlike the Lady in Grey, a handsome building also unoccupied, save possibly for the ghostly lady herself, endlessly wandering the house searching for her mother’s jewels, bequeathed to her but hidden away by her jealous sisters.

A more recent and very real bequest in Shardlow is the provision of two defibrillators for the village, for which funding has been raised by Parish Council Chairman Martyn Clifton. This says much about Shardlow. As Sheila Cooke concludes: ‘There is a really good community spirit in this village. We’ve made so many friends here and all of them really care about the village, its environment and its history.

‘When I lead guided walks through the village, we meet nothing but friendly and welcoming locals which makes such a good impression on visitors. We’re seeing increasing visitors to our historic village and I’m so pleased to see local businesses profiting from that. It keeps our village alive.’